How international education at MRU has adapted during the COVID-19 pandemic
By Christian Kindrachuk, Web Editor
While the COVID-19 pandemic has temporarily halted the physical experience of international education, it has not stopped students from seeking international opportunities. The international education office at Mount Royal University (MRU) is adapting to the new normal as interest in studying abroad continues.
With 316 international students attending MRU this semester — up from last year’s 249 — the university’s international education program has continued to see growth, according to Dianne MacDonald, director of international education at MRU.
“I think students have more time to think about it and plan, and you know, just really ponder,” says MacDonald.
“It’s just human instinct — when we’re all confined to our homes or limited bubbles, it’s exciting to think about what kind of opportunities might be on the other side.”
While there isn’t as much mobility for students with classes being taught online, international education needed to adapt quickly to this change when the pandemic began earlier this year.
“It shifted very dramatically, and very quickly. In March, when we were going into lockdown, we actually, at that point, made the decision to bring all of our students who were abroad home; several remained because they felt that they were in fairly secure positions,” says MacDonald.
This was at a point when MRU was projected to see 11 per cent of graduating students having international experience — well above the five per cent outlined in MRU’s strategic plan for 2025.
“We have very ambitious goals around meeting our target, that is, five per cent of graduating students from Mount Royal will have an international experience,” said MacDonald.
“Obviously, we’ll just continue to aspire to meet those goals and really encourage as many students as we can to get involved and get engaged in international opportunities.”
Samuel Velazquez, an international business student at MRU who worked with an ESL program through the summer of 2019, thinks the opportunities from international experiences are still worth it.
“I think the world that we live in now [is] so diverse, and especially Canada, we have people from all over the world and I think it’s such a valuable skill to … just be able to have an open mind and think internationally,” he says.
Velazquez — who is originally from Panama — completed an internship there, independent from MRU, doing work with the Canadian and Peruvian embassies, which led him to switch his major from general management to international business.
Velazquez got to learn more about different cultures and connect with students by working with the International Student Support Centre as cultural events lead last year on campus, and continues to volunteer with the centre.
“What appealed to me was that I wanted to share my experiences of how great MRU is, and the diversity, with other students,” says Velazquez.
One way to still have this experience during the pandemic is a virtual exchange where students will take classes at other universities while staying at home.
“It’s an amazing learning opportunity for students to take a course. We’ve got several students that are taking courses in Spain, France, Austria, potentially Mexico,” says MacDonald.
“It opens the parameters a little further, and we also have virtual internships happening as well.”
Velazquez sees this as a good start for international education, since in-person learning is currently out of the question.
“If students are looking into studying abroad or working internationally, I think definitely look into it and try it, because at least it gives you a small glance of what it can be and [it] prepares you for that,” he says.
The international office is hopeful that interest will remain, even though any chance to travel has been canceled at least until spring 2021. However, almost 70 students have expressed interest in studying abroad in the near future, and 40 out of 50 students with exchanges planned for the winter 2021 semester have deferred them to the fall.
“I think as soon as we’re free to fly we’re going to see a real boom, so that hasn’t diminished. It’s not a surprise, but it’s good to know that there remains a strong interest to go abroad, I think people are just going to be itching to get away,” says MacDonald.